This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/8/17. It looks at our first principle in terms of self-worth in light of our trying times.
Every New Year, many of us feel the pressure to make resolutions; to give up this, or to strive for that. Eat better, exercise more, and maybe drink less and probably hide from the holiday sugar crush. Some of the more detail oriented of us write them up as if we were in a work-based performance review – smart goals that are quantifiable, actionable, timely and measured. “I will lose x pounds a week for the following y number of months.” Others keep it simpler, “Maybe I’ll go to church or Temple this week.” If that’s you; I’m glad you made that resolution – welcome to our Fellowship!
Looking back at the year just over, I know that many of us felt like it was a long slog through hardship, turmoil and disappointment or loss. It became so culturally endemic as “the worst year ever” that we realized we needed to create spaces at our Fellowship for folks to come together through small groups, vigils, social action and we even updated our website to clearly ask, “Are you looking for a safe place during these uncertain times? A place to find people who share your values and concerns? We welcome you here.”
In some ways, for many of us, 2016 felt like an unwelcome guest who came knocking at our door. Now that 2017 is here, we’re wondering what kind of stranger it will turn out to be. Do we still walk with hunched shoulders waiting for the other shoe to drop, or do we plan for something new and more positive? Do we even feel we have a choice? As the year came to a close, many of my messages each week were dealing with harder and harder topics. Taking a deep breath, I wonder if we can begin our new year on a lighter note, clear the fog, and begin again to do the hard work that won’t magically go away – to build the beloved community – maybe with our backs a little straighter and taller than they’ve felt in awhile.
Imagining years as guests at our door got me thinking about the folk tale I told earlier in our service today –The Soup Stone. I think it can be really helpful in looking at a new year in a new light. It began by saying that “A woman in a village was surprised to find a very well-dressed stranger at her door, asking for something to eat. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I have nothing in the house right now.’”
What a curious challenge this story creates! All we know about the man with the odd soup stone, is how he’s dressed. Just a first impression really. But with it, a rock and some good clothes, all the folks in the village go from not feeling like they have anything to offer to being able to cook a meal for the whole town…. It’s enough to make one want to carry a rock around with us all the time.
I’ve always liked this story for the rare tale of the charlatan who uses their charisma for the good; the sacred trickster who generates wealth and compassion rather than the type to siphon it away for their own ends. It reminds me of stories friends have shared who have benefitted from the random driver ahead of them who chose to pay their toll at a collection site, only to generate a string of folks paying for the next person behind them. Maybe nothing has actually changed if each successive driver still pays the same amount, but it makes a world of difference in how we see the drive. Or as our image on the screen today shows rose-colored glasses covering a bleak landscape – we can sometimes choose the meaning of the story – creating beauty along the way. We can choose sometimes to feel like the kind-hearted well-dressed stranger in the story, or sometimes we can choose to be the villager who feels they have nothing left to give. We don’t always have a choice, but I think in our times of strength we have much more of a choice than we allow ourselves to think we have.
The story we heard this morning is a sad one in a way as well. It relays truthfully the world we live in when it reminds us of how much clout and status we give to strangers (and maybe to New Years too.) There’s a message here that we all have something to give, but we so often give away that power to others with rocks in their hands and a smart set of clothes. Remember that as we go boldly into a new year. It’s the internal voice that convinces us that everyone around us is smarter, or more skilled, more talented, or better looking. It’s the same one that loudly lies to us that others are more self-assured and confident. In case no one’s mentioned this to you today regarding self-assurance, (and it’s a message I need to hear just about daily to remember,) the other person is probably thinking the same thing about you. Most of us think we’re more of a mess than those around us; even and especially those who outwardly act like the entire world is more a mess than they.
Of course, we will all go through times where we are particularly down from loss or illness, drawn out from work, or enervated from family. And the guest at our table – in the form of 2016 – may have gavin us many reasons to doubt ourselves. They are all realities in life that we will forever struggle with. But even in those moments, worth comes from within, even if it might take a stranger or a community to help bring that sense of self-worth back to the surface. The Soup Stone’s resolution involves a secreted exit for the trickster of the story, who leaves the very precious rock behind. The people of the village have been gifted with the magic they need to realize their capacity for giving. They are better able to see what they are able to offer to the world. I see them as better recognizing their own value. What they can only achieve from within, they are only able to do so by being in community; with a little good-hearted kick from the story’s roving trickster character.
So why do we do it? Why do we give rocks magical powers and think we have none of our own? Why do we so clearly see the value in others, and so often have a terrible time seeing the value in ourselves? Why do we all do it, and easily forget that that means the person next to us is also similarly struggling? How do we lift up the mantle of trickster in the story, and live that generosity for ourselves? That’s the religious question (or questions) for the day.
For those who are new to Unitarian Universalism, we have 7 principles that are central to our ethics. You can read them all in your order of service but today I want to focus on our first principle – what I think of as the promise of worth – our first principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In practice, it means several things: First, that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect; regardless of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality or gender expression. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that lofty and healing goal.
The second is about spiritual calling: just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. In this way, this principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.
There’s at least a third aspect that’s important – especially when years grow long and wear on our shoulders. If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict upon ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? It’s the villager that believes they have nothing to give, when in fact they have so very much to give. Some years may tell us we have nothing left to give, and we can’t listen to that message. Just the other day, Starr Austin and I were talking about a cartoon we saw make its way through social media. It had two people talking on a piece of ground that read “2017” and it showed one person asking a gardener how did they know the year would bring up something new – and the gardener replied “because I’m planting the seeds.” I think the world can be a harsh place at times, and this cute cartoon doesn’t speak to that, but it does remind us not to still the work of our own hands because we’ve convinced ourselves that we are powerless. We still have agency ourselves despite all the sound and noise of the wider world.
We often hear the first principle as a justice issue; and it definitely is that as well; but it can be a pastoral issue as well. How do we convince ourselves that we deserve to treat ourselves as well as we expect ourselves to treat others? How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others – within us as well?
I’ve been wrestling with these questions in relation to our seven principles. As Unitarian Universalists we are a covenantal faith. Rather than coming together based on a shared creed, we are a faith whose identity is based on shared commitments. As a tradition we first stand in relation to one another, rather than how much we agree with one another. Despite all this, we too often speak of our seven principles as beliefs. The wording for them all begins with us agreeing to “covenant to affirm and promote…”.
How can the principles be more than affirmations of static belief – which they’re not supposed to be – while still speaking to the questions of the spirit and the heart? How differently would we engage with our principles if we saw them as religious promises, rather than simply religious beliefs? As a covenantal faith we focus first on our relations, and so too can our core principles. A promise is a sort of belief that we extend out into the world between ourselves and someone else; although sometimes it is a value that we commit to just with ourselves. And I’m talking here about the bigger ones. Like the promise a parent makes to their children, verbalized or implicit, in that they will raise and care for them with all their heart. It’s a belief that the parent typically holds to, and one that children usually believe (– at least till our teenage years, then all bets are off.) The promise is lived between the parent and the child. It has as much power and substance as the maker invests in it. It’s deeply relational, and intrinsically based on belief.
So, what changes? Promises bring us back to the theological question. In the case of the first principle, our faith makes the bold statement that everyone has worth and dignity; including yourself; including myself. I promise you that your inherently worthy. You may not be feeling that to be the case at this moment because of something you’re carrying with you from work, or school, or how you acted on your way in here this morning, or how brutal a year was for you. But it is a promise Unitarian Universalism makes. We’re not saying we’re forgiven, although we all need to be from time to time. We’re not saying we’re justified, or sinners, or lost or found – although we may all be all of that at different moments in any given day. We’re saying we have worth, and we deserve to be treated with dignity; even by ourselves.
So, in light of the question I posed before. “How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others within us as well?” We have the theological basis for a religious discipline. As we begin again this New Year, whether excited, or worn down, how do we choose to begin it? We’re writing our collective open letters to the New Year; do we choose to assent to the promise our faith puts forth, or do we choose to turn away from it? Recognizing the worth in others; others recognizing the worth in us; and we recognizing the worth in ourselves. If the first two ways come more naturally to you – and I know they do for me; remind yourself of them when you can’t find anything about yourself to value. That’s the beauty of a promise made. They may be difficult to keep, but if they are made with integrity they plot a very honest course.
The promise of our faith encourages us to live knowing that we believe in the people around us; that we are all deserving of a place at the table. Our story this morning ends with the exclamation, “Bowls for everyone. Then they all sat down to a delicious meal while the stranger handed out large helpings of his incredible soup. Everyone felt strangely happy as they laughed and talked and shared their very first common meal.”
We too often give up our self-worth to the judgments of others, or the ardor of years now gone by. We too often sooner place credence in magic rocks than believe we ourselves have something to contribute. The promise of our faith teaches us another path.